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Journal of Divorce & Remarriage

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A Construct Study of the Eight Symptoms

of Severe Parental Alienation Syndrome
a b
Amy J. L. Baker PhD & Douglas C. Damall PhD
The staff of Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection , New
York Foundling , 990 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY, USA
The staff of PsyCare Inc. , 2980 Belmont Avenue, Youngstown, OH,
44505, USA
Published online: 25 Sep 2008.

To cite this article: Amy J. L. Baker PhD & Douglas C. Damall PhD (2007) A Construct Study of the
Eight Symptoms of Severe Parental Alienation Syndrome, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 47:1-2,
55-75, DOI: 10.1300/J087v47n01_04

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A Construct Study of the Eight
Symptoms of Severe Parental
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Alienation Syndrome:
A Survey of Parental Experiences
Amy J. L. Baker
Douglas C. Darnall

ABSTRACT. A survey study was conducted of adults who self-reported

having children who were severely alienated from them. The primary
research questions addressed were: (1) To what extent were the eight
symptoms of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)–as identified by the
construct’s originator, Dr. Richard Gardner–reported to be manifested
by the alienated children? And (2) holding severity constant, to what de-
gree did the frequency of symptoms vary? Sixty-eight parents reported
that the relationship with their children was severely damaged due to the
attitudes and actions of the other parent. One question was asked about
each of Gardner’s eight symptoms (campaign of denigration, frivolous,
weak or absurd rationale for the alienation, lack of ambivalence towards
the alienating, lack of guilt or remorse about the alienation, borrowed
scenarios, independent thinker phenomenon, taking the alienating par-
ent’s side in the conflict, and spread of alienation to the extended family
of the targeted parent). Additional questions were surveyed to determine

Amy J. L. Baker, PhD, is on the staff of Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protec-
tion, New York Foundling, 990 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY (E-mail:
Douglas C. Darnall, PhD, is on the staff of PsyCare Inc., 2980 Belmont Avenue,
Youngstown, OH 44505 (E-mail:
Address correspondence to: Amy J. L. Baker, 1165 W. Laurelton Parkway, Teaneck,
NJ 07666.
Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, Vol. 47(1/2) 2007
Available online at
© 2007 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1300/J087v47n01_04 55

whether despite the severity of the alienation, were there moments in

which the child was less than completely rejecting and committed to the
alienation. Results revealed general support for the presence of the eight
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symptoms of PAS as well as insight into windows of opportunity when

even the most severely alienated child demonstrates some “cracks in the
armor,” raising hope for clinical intervention and eventual reunification.
doi:10.1300/J087v47n01_04 [Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth
Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: <docdelivery@> Website: <> © 2007 by The
Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

KEYWORDS. Children of divorce, parents, divorce, parental alienation

syndrome, children adjustment to divorce


Richard Gardner (1998) defined-parental alienation syndrome (PAS)

as a “disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody dis-
putes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration
against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from
a combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrina-
tions and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the targeted
parent” (p. 77). Gardner’s criteria for defining the syndrome focused on
the child’s behavior after the child has been successfully alienated from
the targeted parent.
According to Gardner (1998), children may manifest from four to
eight behaviors depending on the severity of the alienation, which to-
gether comprise the syndrome of parental alienation.
The first manifestation is a campaign of denigration against the tar-
geted parent. Parents who were once loved and valued seemingly over-
night become hated and feared. (It is important to note that when there is
legitimate reason for the child’s fear and hostility towards the targeted
parent, such as founded abuse or neglect, the negative reaction to the
parent is not considered (PAS) by Gardner.)
Second is reliance on weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalizations for
the depreciation of the targeted parent. The objections made in the cam-
paign of denigration are often not of the magnitude that would lead
a child to hate a parent, such as slurping soup or serving spicy food.
The third manifestation is a lack of ambivalence towards both
parents. The child is unable to admit any flaws in the alienating parent.
Amy J. L. Baker and Douglas C. Darnall 57

Support for that parent is automatic, reflexive, and idealized, while the
child sees no good in the rejected parent.
Fourth, the child strongly asserts that the decision to reject the other
parent is his or her own. The child may without any hesitations exclaim
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that his or her opinions are not those of the alienating parent. This is
what Gardner called the “Independent Thinker” phenomenon.
A fifth manifestation is absence of guilt about the treatment of the tar-
geted parent. The child will argue that mistreatment of the rejected
parent is justified with no qualm about how the rejected parent may feel.
Gratitude for gifts, favors, or financial support provided by the targeted
parent is nonexistent.
Sixth is reflexive support for the alienating parent in parental con-
flicts. There is no willingness or attempt to be impartial or to consider
the targeted parent’s point of view.
Seventh, is the presence of borrowed scenarios. PAS children often
make accusations towards the targeted parent that utilize phrases and
ideas adopted wholesale from the alienating parent. One clue that a sce-
nario is borrowed from an alienating parent is the child’s use of lan-
guage and concepts that do not seem to be understood such as making
accusations that cannot be supported with detail, using words that are
not age appropriate, or recounting early events prior to the child’s ability
to remember.
And, finally, the rejection of the targeted parent spreads to his or her
extended family and significant other. Formerly beloved grandparents,
aunts, uncles, and cousins are suddenly avoided and rejected.
According to Gardner (2003) PAS could be mild, moderate, or severe
depending on the number of symptoms identified. He made no attempt
at weighting the importance or frequency of specific symptoms. No
single cluster of symptoms was seen as more indicative of mild versus
severe PAS. However, he did believe that in the severe cases the mani-
festation of the eight behaviors was “persistent” and “formidable.”
Currently, there is both widespread acceptance as well as heated de-
bate regarding the validity of the construct of PAS (see for example
Johnston & Kelly, 2001; Warshak, 2001a). There are (at least) two
related questions regarding the validity of the PAS construct; the first is
general and the second specific. The general validity question can be
phrased in the following way: Is it true that some children become hos-
tile and rejecting towards an otherwise adequate parent largely–if not
wholly–due to the actions and attitudes of the other parent? The second
validity issue is specific and can be phrased as: What is the actual
(as opposed to theoretical) relationship between the eight symptoms

of PAS and the three levels of the syndrome? That is, for example, do all
severely alienated children exhibit all eight symptoms in the extreme
or are there degrees to which these symptoms are manifested even
within the severe level of PAS. The importance in making a distinction
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between the three levels of alienation may have ramifications for treat-
ment and prognosis. What, exactly, Gardner meant by “present” and
“formidable” in regard to the eight symptoms is not known and could
allow for the possibility of some variation.
Laying aside the question of terminology for now, this first question
can be addressed through an examination of the extant literature on
children and divorce as well as parent-child relationships. Such a re-
view reveals that although Gardner coined the term PAS, others have
long recognized that children can become alienated from a parent as a
result of undue influence of the other parent (as distinct from alienation
due to other causes). Wallerstein (1984) for example has been credited
with early recognition of this problem in her writing about the Medea
Complex. In fact, there is currently a burgeoning literature confirming
the existence and problem of children becoming alienated from one par-
ent due primarily to the adverse influence of the other. Some call this
phenomenon PAS while others refer to it as the alienated child (Kelly &
Johnston, 2001) or simply as programmed children (Clawar & Rivlin,
1991). As noted by Warshak (2001a), the concept of PAS has achieved
widespread acceptance as having face validity among some clinicians–
notably child custody evaluators and other forensic psychologists. Based
on his review of the literature, Warshak concluded that, “The frequency
of reports in the clinical literature and the close similarity of reported
cases to Gardner’s descriptions, lends support to the validity of PAS.”
The work of Kopetski (1998a, b), Clawar and Rivlin (1991), Lund
(1995), Waldron and Joanis (1996) and Price and Pioske (1994) provide
examples of face validity of the general notion of PAS. Even detractors
of the concept acknowledge that some children become pathologically
estranged from one parent as a result of undue influence by the other
parent (Kelly & Johnston, 2001). Baker (2005a, b, c; 2006) has also pro-
vided some construct validity as a result of interviews with adults who
believe that when they were children they were manipulated by one par-
ent to reject the other parent. There are now several books and articles
on the PAS which are theoretical, descriptive, or proscriptive. The work
of Rand (1997a, b), Waldron and Joanis (1996), Walsh and Bone (1997)
and Warshak (2001b) are examples of such theoretical efforts in the
field to define or describe PAS. Darnall (1998) as well as Baker and
Amy J. L. Baker and Douglas C. Darnall 59

Darnall (2006) have provided detailed elaboration on the strategies that

parents use to turn a child against the other parent.
Despite the general consensus in the field that children can become
pathologically alienated (as opposed to estranged due to other factors
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that can explain parent-child conflict like failure to bond, abuse, puni-
tive parenting or other behaviors damaging the relationship), there is no
reliable and valid measure of PAS per se. In fact, a recent survey of
child custody evaluators revealed that despite widespread endorsement
of the general concept of PAS, many admitted to using global assess-
ments and, perhaps consequently, lacking confidence in the reliability
of their assessments (Baker, in press). In addition, Baker found wide
variation in the proportion of cases in which an evaluator concluded that
PAS had occurred, ranging from 0% to over 50% of their sample.
One reason for the current state of affairs pertains to the second valid-
ity question, that is, lack of clarity as to the relationship between the
eight symptoms identified by Gardner (1998) and the overall construct
of PAS. Two possible relationships exist between the categorization of
PAS (mild, moderate, or severe) and the eight symptoms. The first
is that they are interdependent. That it, only youth who exhibit all eight
symptoms are considered severely alienated. Youth who demonstrate
anything less would be coded as moderately or mildly alienated. A
problem with this scenario, however, is that it would probably result in
many youth being classified as moderately alienated when they were in
fact severely alienated. As an example, how would a clinician judge the
severity of the following case: A 17-year-old girl moved out of her
mother’s home to live with her alienating father. The child who once
had a positive, warm, and loving relationship with her mother has de-
cided that all they ever did was fight. She has cut her mother off from al-
most all contact, refusing to sleep at her home, denigrates the mother
to anyone who will listen, and refuses to so much as have a meal with
her. And yet, this same child did spend time with her mother and her
mother’s extended family during Thanksgiving and Christmas. She also
answers her mother’s phone calls semi-regularly and will participate in
a brief conversation, although her affect is usually flat or hostile. She
sees her mother at Sunday school and will passively allow her mother to
hug and kiss her. By most accounts this child would be considered se-
verely alienated: There is virtually no relationship left between mother
and daughter, the only contact is mother-initiated. This case extends far
beyond Gardner’s (1998) definition of moderate alienation in which
there is some difficulty and struggle around visitation but eventually the
child does visit and does have a positive interaction with the targeted

parent. And yet, if one ascribes to the condition that only those children
manifesting all eight symptoms all of the time can be defined as se-
verely alienated, this child would not meet the definition as she does
not ALWAYS reject the extended family and does allow for SOME
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positive interactions with the mother.

An alternative approach is to categorize as mild, moderate, or se-
verely alienated based on Gardner’s general descriptions–regardless
of the presence/absence or strength of the eight symptoms. Such an
approach assumes that severely alienated children can still exhibit some
variation in their behavior and recognizes that in light of Gardner
having only identified three categories of PAS (mild, moderate, and se-
vere), that in all likelihood, there is some variation within the categories.
That is, among a group of children–all of whom are severely alien-
ated–there is some variation in style and degree of presentation of the
eight symptoms defined by Gardner.
The aim of the study was to empirically examine the relationship be-
tween PAS and the eight symptoms. The primary hypothesis was that
children who were severely alienated (defined as exhibiting extreme
unwarranted negativity toward the other parent due to the actions and
attitudes of the other parent in such a manner as to severely limit the re-
lationship) would not uniformly and consistently exhibit extreme scores
on the eight symptoms as defined by Gardner. Thus, it was expected
that there would be some variation on the eight symptoms in a sample of
cases that met Gardner’s definition of severe PAS. If the data bear out
this hypothesis, then the conclusion can be made that the categorization
of PAS is not tautologically related to the eight symptoms and that there
is some variation within a group of severely alienated children. Such
data can be used to lay the groundwork for the development of a stan-
dardized assessment tool for measuring PAS, stimulate additional re-
search validating the symptoms, and explore the ramifications for
treatment. The reliability and validity of such a tool could be tested and
subsequently used in legal as well as mental health settings for purposes
of identification, intervention, and treatment.


A survey study was conducted in March-April of 2006. Subjects

were recruited through the second author’s posting of an invitation on
his website which directed interested individuals to the first author’s
(A.J.L.B.) e-mail address. In response to these queries the first author
Amy J. L. Baker and Douglas C. Darnall 61

sent a copy of the survey and followed up to ensure an adequate re-

sponse rate. The survey contained further clarification as to inclusion
criteria. It was explained that to meet the study’s criteria the child must
profess to want nothing to do with the parent and the parent’s access to
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the child was minimal at best. The parent must believe that the other
parent has seriously interfered with and deliberately influenced the
child’s behavior towards them. This statement captures the essence of
severe PAS without using the term and without referencing the eight
symptoms. It was also explained that the survey was not for step-parents
and that the child had to be 18 years of age or younger.
Informed consent was obtained through completion of the survey.
The first section of the survey stated the purpose of the survey (to under-
stand the behaviors of these children) and described the voluntary
nature of the study and the ways in which confidentiality would be as-
sured. Only those parents who agreed to these terms proceeded to com-
plete the survey. In all, 144 parents responded to the posting within the
specified time frame and received a copy of the survey. Of the 144 sur-
veys sent out, 19 people responded that the survey did not apply to them
(either their child was over 18 years of age or the degree of alienation
was not consistent with the description provided), reducing the total to
125, 92 of which were completed. Thus, the response rate was 73.6%.
The reasons why the 33 parents did not respond can only be hypothe-
sized. It was quite likely that some portion of the 33 people did not re-
ceive the survey or they did not feel that the survey applied to them. In
fact of the 33, only 11 confirmed receipt and then did not complete the
Two methodological limitation needs to be addressed at this point. It
is important to note that no independent verification that discriminated
between severe and moderate degrees of alienation was possible. As
a result, the variation noted in the results could be due to the inclusion of
less than severe cases in the sample. Attempts were made to discrimi-
nate and exclude moderate cases by including only cases in which the
parent reported having had no or only minimum contact with their child
because of the child’s alienation. As defined by Gardner, in severe
alienation cases there is no visitation (due to the refusal of the child)
or visitation is marked by destructive and provocative behaviors. Any
respondent whose survey suggested the possibility of moderate–as op-
posed to severe–alienation was removed from the final sample (n = 8).
In this way, only the most extreme cases were included in the sample,
ensuring greater confidence that the variation in the child’s behavior

was exhibited among the severe cases as opposed to reflecting inclusion

of moderate cases in the sample.
A second methodological concern was that there was no way to
ascertain whether these cases reflect PAS or whether the estrangement
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between parent and child was a result of other familial dynamics such
as the child’s preference for the “better parent,” punitive parenting,
or even abusive behavior. Estranged parents could find their way to
the survey either through a conscious desire to pose as a targeted parent
or through denial of their own role in the estrangement. If in fact es-
tranged children behave differently than PAS children, the results of the
survey could be compromised. The only way to know for sure whether
these cases are actually PAS cases as opposed to estrangement would be
to have custody evaluators or other forensic/clinical psychologists in-
dependently evaluate the selected cases. In the absence of this option,
the material was carefully reviewed by the first author to ensure that the
cases appeared to be consistent with PAS and that the respondents pro-
vided credible and internally consistent examples of their experience
with PAS.


Of the 92 completed surveys, 24 were removed due to the child being

over 18 years of age (n = 16) or the alienated parent having greater ac-
cess to the child than is typical of a severely alienated child (n = 8). That
is, it appeared as if the child was moderately rather than severely alien-
ated. Sixty-eight cases remained in the data set. These 68 survey partici-
pants were between 31 and 58 years of age (M = 44, SD = 7.0); 38 were
male and 30 were female. Five had full custody, 25 had either joint,
shared, or split custody, 18 were non-custodial parents (with and with-
out supervised visitation), 5 were denied access by the court, and 14
checked “other” category to describe their custody status, usually be-
cause it was currently in flux. One parent did not answer this question.
The child about whom the survey was completed was between 4 and 18
years of age (Mean = 14.1, SD = 2.8) at the time of the survey and had
been severely alienated from the parent on average for 3.4 years.

The Survey

The survey was comprised 33 questions, 24 of which are the focus of

this paper. The first set of eight questions asked for demographic infor-
mation including age and gender of the respondent; the date the survey
Amy J. L. Baker and Douglas C. Darnall 63

was completed, the age and gender of the child and the age of the child
when the relationship became severely damaged; the current custody
status for the target child (1 = Primary custodial parent, 2 = Non custo-
dial parent with visitation or parenting time, 3 = SPLIT custody, 4 = non
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custodial with supervised visits, 5 = Joint, 6 = Non custodial with unsu-

pervised visits, 7 = Non custodial with supervised visits, 8 = Other) and
number of hours per month, if any, the participant spent with the child.
The next section of the survey focused on the behaviors of the child
and included 17 questions all of which were coded on either a five-point
frequency scale (never, rarely, sometimes, often, always) or a five-point
quantity scale (none, a little, somewhat, mostly, completely). For each
of the eight symptoms there was one primary question that asked di-
rectly about the child’s behavior and one or more secondary questions
that were designed to explore variations in the child’s behavior vis á vis
that symptom.
For symptom one the primary question was “Does the child deni-
grate, belittle you, call you names, and deny having any positive experi-
ences with you?” The secondary questions were “Does the child refuse
to spend time with you?” and “How often does the child say positive or
complimentary statements towards you?”
For symptom two the primary question was “Are the reasons the
child gives for rejecting you weak, frivolous, or absurd?” The second-
ary question was, “Does the child ever recognize that the reasons are
absurd, frivolous or weak?”
The primary question for symptom three was “Does the child lack
ambivalence about his or her attitude about the other parent, believing
that the parent does nothing wrong and is uniformly good” The second-
ary question was “Have there been times when the child has been able to
admit flaws in the other parent?”
For symptom four the primary question was “Does the child insist or
make it a point that to say his or her attitude towards you is not influ-
enced by the other parent?” The secondary question was “Have there
been any times when the child has admitted that his or her attitude or
behavior towards you is influenced by someone else?”
Symptom five included only the primary question “Does the child
express guilt or remorse about his or her attitude or behavior towards
The primary question for symptom six was “When there is a disagree-
ment between you and the other parent, does the child side with the other
parent?” The secondary question was “When there is a disagreement

between you and the other parent, has the child shown any indication of
siding with you or seeing your perspective?”
For symptom seven the primary question was “When the child is angry
or misbehaving towards you, does he or she use language, phrases, or ex-
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amples that are borrowed/repeated from the other parent?”

For symptom eight the primary question was, “Has the child’s behav-
ior toward you spread to your extended family?” Secondary questions
included, “Has the child been able to maintain a positive and loving re-
lationship with one or more members of your extended family?” and
“Has the child had some positive moments with at least one member of
your extended family?”


To address the first question, to what extent were the eight symptoms
of PAS–as identified by the construct’s originator, Dr. Richard Gardner
(1998)–reported to be completely manifested by the severely alienated
children, the frequency distribution of the “primary” survey items were
calculated. These are presented in Table 1.

Campaign of Denigration

According to Gardner this should be “formidable” in cases of severe

PAS. In this study, 59.1% of the targeted parents reported that their
child always denigrated, rejected, or belittled them. Another 28.8% re-
ported that this behavior occurred often. Twelve percent reported that it

TABLE 1. Frequency Distribution of PAS Symptoms (n = 68)

Survey Item 0 1 2 3 4
Campaign of denigration 00.0 03.0 09.1 28.8 59.1
Weak, frivolous reasons 00.0 00.0 01.5 13.6 84.8
Lack of ambivalence 00.0 00.0 03.1 20.3 76.6
Insists not influenced by alienating parent 01.6 01.6 01.6 18.0 77.0
Express no guilt or remorse 00.0 00.0 11.1 15.9 73.0
Sides with alienating parent in conflicts 00.0 00.0 00.0 12.1 87.9
Use borrowed phrases 01.6 04.9 14.8 36.1 42.6
Rejects extended family 06.7 05.0 11.7 23.3 53.3
Amy J. L. Baker and Douglas C. Darnall 65

occurred sometimes or rarely and no targeted reported that it never hap-

pened. Thus, 87.8% believed that the campaign of denigration was of-
ten or always present in their relationship with their alienated child.
Examples of this provided by the survey respondents included the fol-
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lowing statements, “I ran for the local school board and my son wrote
a letter to my opponent telling him what a bad person I was.” “My
daughter said ‘Whatever it takes I am going to destroy you so I can live
with dad.’” “They tell me that I am stupid, that I am a liar, and that I have
put their father in jail or will put him in jail.” “When asked why he no
longer wanted to see us, he stated that ‘he never had any fun here’ and
we never listened to him.” These–and many similar–statements portray
children who are verbally abusive, entitled, angry, and hostilely rejecting
towards their parent.

Weak, Frivolous or Absurd Reasons

for the Depreciation

More than eight in ten parents (84.8%) expressed the opinion that all
of the reasons for the depreciation were weak, frivolous, or absurd. All
but one of the remaining survey respondents believed that the reasons
for their child’s rejection were mostly unfounded and not the kinds
of reasons that would account for their child’s persistent rejection of
them. Examples of the weak, absurd, or frivolous reasons included the
following, “He said that he ‘doesn’t like the orange stripes in my hair’
and the way I dress is embarrassing. He ‘couldn’t believe’ I was wear-
ing cowboy boots when I picked him up at school.” “You make me eat
bad food. You never put me down for my nap on the couch!!” “His
mother and/or counselor helped him put together a list of reasons why
he does not want to return to my house. He said I locked him out of the
house. He said that his youngest stepbrother was ‘thrown three-feet in
the air onto his bed’ as punishment. He added that my stepson sleeps on
the top bunk and that it only holds 50 pounds, although he weighs way
over 50 pounds.”

Lack of Ambivalence About the Alienating Parent

Three fourths (76.6%) of the targeted parents reported that their child
completely lacked ambivalence about the alienating parent and another
20.3% felt that this was mostly true. Only two parents felt that this
was only true sometimes or rarely and not one parent believed that this
was never true. Thus, all but two parents felt that the child mostly or

completely lacked ambivalence about the other parent. Behaviors that

exemplified lack of ambivalence included, “I asked him what was one
thing he liked about me and he could not come up with a single answer.”
“My son only now says positive things about his Dad. Even though he
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knows his father didn’t visit him for the first 11 years. There are excuses
for why his father didn’t visit. Even when his Dad belittles me–my son
says he only does so because these things are true.”

Independent Thinker Phenomenon

Three fourths of the parents (77.0%) reported that their child always
made it a point to insist that his or her attitudes about the targeted parent
were his or her own thinking and not a reflection of the influence of
someone else. Another 18% said that this was mostly true. Only one
parent said that this was only somewhat true and not one parent said that
this was never true. “When giving me their laundry list of complaints
about me as a person and a parent I asked my daughters what they had
heard from their mother and what they had personally witnessed. They
said their mother had told them everything, but they had ‘made up their
own minds’ based on their mother’s words. But she, in their view, had
had no influence on their views.” “We rarely speak about the situation
as I am trying to build a relationship with my son in the here and now but
I do recall a specific incident when I was speaking to him about my cur-
rent wife. He commented, ‘We don’t like her and it’s not because of
mum.’” “He will start out by saying, ‘Mom, this is my decision and
mine only’ and then repeat exactly what his dad has been saying. He
challenges me on events that he is not even a witness to, and he is not
getting the information from me.” “My daughter will frequently say that
the things she tells me are her idea and that she has ‘free will.’ She tells
me that when she doesn’t call me (court ordered phone contact) that it is
her fault and not her dad’s.”

Lack of Guilt or Remorse

Seventy-three percent reported that their child never showed any re-
morse or guilt for the rejection and mistreatment of the targeted parent.
And another 18% said that the child showed only a little remorse or
guilt. Only one parent said that the child sometimes showed remorse or
guilt and no parent said that this occurred mostly or completely. One
parent reported, “Prior to the time when (son) decided to live exclu-
sively at his father and stepmother’s house, he cut back visits to my
Amy J. L. Baker and Douglas C. Darnall 67

house to one weekend a month. On one occasion he called up the day

before he was supposed to come over and gave me a list of nonstop
social activities that he had chosen to do for that weekend. I told him
that my husband and I had planned some things that we wanted to do
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with him when he came over, and asked him why he hadn’t called me
earlier in the week to discuss his plans with me. I told him that my hus-
band and I wanted to spend some time with him over the weekend, and
that he should choose one activity. He became upset, and told me that he
didn’t want to come over at all, and that Dad and Step-mom would take
him to all the things he wanted to do. He didn’t understand that I was
hurt because I was only seeing him one weekend a month, and wanted to
spend time with him, rather than driving him around and dropping him
off at different places. He told me that I was trying to make him feel
guilty by telling him I missed him.” Another parent shared that, “Josh
brashly told the Judge half-truths in my custody trial and walked out of
the courtroom smiling and saying, ‘I did it!’”

Sides with Alienating Parent in Inter-Parental Conflicts

Close to 90% of the surveyed parents reported that their child

completely sided with the other parent in any inter-parental conflict and
the remaining 12% said this happened often. No parent said that the
child sometimes, rarely, or never sided with the other parent in inter-
parental conflicts. The following statements typify this situation, “The
mother wouldn’t allow his antibiotics or other medications to travel
with him to my house, even though the medications traveled back and
forth to daycare. She insisted that I buy my OWN antibiotics; however,
that meant making an appointment with his doctor and getting a dupli-
cate prescription. This didn’t work many times because the doctor
would be out of the office on the days I was told I needed medication for
the child. I would say in frustration ‘I don’t see WHY your medicine
can’t come with you . . . now you can’t stay overnight with me, I have to
bring you home before your next dose is due!’ He would say “It’s
YOUR fault. You’re too stupid to get your own medicine.” “The father
and I disagreed on whether Late French Immersion (LFI) would be
good or not. I made the decision that as he is an intelligent child (all A’s
at school) he would be in LFI. The child was very positive about the
challenge in speaking with me and at school, but his dad continued to
disagree. Within a span of two weeks, he no longer wanted to be in LFI
and I should never have enrolled him and he wanted to be removed
ASAP.” “Whatever his father says even if it is absurd my son agrees to

without hesitation.” “When his father stopped allowing me visitation

just prior to taking him to California he said his father was just looking
out for him. He was covering up his father’s intentions to take him out of
the state. He knew they were leaving months before they actually did
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and didn’t tell me.”

Use of Borrowed Phrases and Ideas

About four in ten parents reported that their child used borrowed
phrases and ideas from the alienating parent always and another 36.1%
said that this happened often. Fifteen percent of the survey respondents
said that sometimes their child used borrowed phrases when interacting
with the targeted parent and 11.7% said this happened rarely or never.
“My daughter has said she only wants to have good childhood memo-
ries. Words her father has used.” “I find that when my son misbehaves
or when he is angry, many or most of the arguments are those borrowed
from my wife. For example he might conduct arguments involving
household finances, driving habits, child advocacy, self-centeredness or
selfishness, or home repair as central to his argument with me.” “Two
voices answered the phone (when I called my son) my son’s and some-
one else. I told him who I was and that I was his father, he immediately
retorted ‘you’re not my father,’ then went into what seemed to me to be
a script. ‘Why did you leave us with no money? Why did you lie to us?
I had to leave my school because of you calling the school and causing
trouble.’ When I asked him where he got that idea, he exclaimed that he
figured it out all by himself. He also said that I left (the family) for
money reasons. I then asked to speak with my daughter who was five at
the time and her greeting was ‘Hello Daddy’ then all she would say,
‘How come you left us without any money?’” Several parents used the
term “script” to describe their child seemingly repeating prepared lines
rather than engaging in an actual or spontaneous dialogue.

Rejects Extended Family

Fifty-three percent reported that the alienation had completely spread

to the extended family and an additional 23.3% said that this was
mostly true. About 12% said that this was true somewhat, and 11.7%
said that this was only a little or not at all true. Parent offered such exam-
ples as, “She also refuses calls from my sister, and my mother. My
mother has taken it the worst. My daughter rejected her so many times
that she doesn’t bother to call or write any longer. She made promises to
Amy J. L. Baker and Douglas C. Darnall 69

her about sending copies of her grades and progress reports, and she has
NEVER received one in the two years that she has been gone. It’s been
months since any member of my family have talked to her on the
phone.” “Years ago, my children had a good relationship with my ex-
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tended family. However, in the past five years, my wife has systemati-
cally denigrated the members of my extended family and my son has
adopted or borrowed her arguments and reasoning towards my family.
For example, ‘Your mother is selfish and self-centered. She is a bad
house guest.’” “My daughter refuses to see my family or her godmother
with whom she was once very close. She refused to come to the hospital
to say goodbye to her grandmother the night before she passed away.”
Many of the survey respondents spoke of their children missing impor-
tant family gatherings and holidays with the extended family, including
once in a lifetime events such as funerals and weddings.
In sum, between 80 and 98% of the parents described their alienated
children as exhibiting the eight symptoms of PAS either always/com-
pletely or often/mostly. The next step in the analysis was to compute an
average score ranging from 0 (Never or Not at all on all eight items) to 4
(Completely or Always on all items). Scoring for the item regarding
guilt was reversed so that high scores indicated less guilt and greater
alienation. If a child were coded as the maximum score on all eight
items the summary score would be 4.0. Table 2 presents the frequency
distribution of this score. As can be seen, two respondents (2.9%) had
scores around 2.5, 55 parents (82.1%) had mean scores between 3 and 4,
and 10 individuals (14.9%) had average scores of 4.0 (most alienated on
all eight items).
The final analysis pertained to an examination of the items that sug-
gested “cracks in the armor” of the alienation, that is, some degree of
attachment and affection despite the alienation and rejection. Frequency
analysis was conducted on these items and the results are presented
in Table 3. As can be seen and consistent with Table 2, most of the

TABLE 2. Frequency of Average Score of Eight Symptoms Score (0-4)

Score N %
0.00 to .99 00 00.0
1.00 to 1.99 00 00.0
2.00 to 2.99 02 03.0
3.00 to 3.99 55 82.1
4.00 10 14.9

TABLE 3. Frequency Distribution of Items Indicating Some Attachment

Survey Item 0 1 2 3 4
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Say positive things to targeted parent 74.2 21.2 04.5 00.0 00.0
Is loving/amicable to targeted parent 49.3 32.8 17.9 00.0 00.0
Recognizes weaknesses in alienating parent 72.6 09.7 14.5 01.6 01.6
Admit flaws in alienating parent 62.1 22.7 15.2 00.0 00.0
Admits influenced by alienating parent 68.9 19.7 03.3 01.6 06.6
Takes targeted parent’s side 83.6 11.5 04.9 00.0 00.0
Positive moments with extended family 40.3 29.0 21.0 03.2 06.5
Loving with one person in extended family 58.7 12.7 19.0 04.8 04.8

children are reported to be rejecting and distancing towards the targeted

parent. Nonetheless, there is some indication of attachment/affection
even in the context of severe alienation. For example, 4.5% said that the
child would sometimes say something positive, 17.9% reported that the
child was sometimes loving or amicable towards them, 14.5% reported
that the child sometimes recognized that the reasons for the rejection
were weak, frivolous, or absurd. Fifteen percent reported that some-
times the children could admit flaws in the alienating parent, close to
10% reported that the child could admit that he or she was being unduly
influenced by the alienating parent, close to 5% said that the child some-
times took their side in inter-parental conflict, and almost one fourth
reported that the child had maintained a positive relationship with someone
in the extended family.


This study was designed to contribute to the empirical validation of

the syndrome of PAS by establishing that for the vast majority of se-
verely alienated cases, the eight symptoms identified by Gardner (1998)
were reported to be present in the children by the targeted parents. Aver-
age scores on the summary PAS scale (ranging from 0 to 4 in which 4
indicated extreme scores on all eight symptoms) revealed that all but
two cases fell between 3.00 and 4.00. Looking at each of the eight
symptoms revealed that the vast majority of parents reported that their
alienated child always or mostly exhibited these behaviors. In general,
these findings are consistent with Gardner’s (1998) clinical observations
about the key manifestations of PAS.
Amy J. L. Baker and Douglas C. Darnall 71

One exception pertained to the alienation spreading to the targeted

parent’s extended family. Only half of the parents reported this to be the
case “always.” However, the comments written by the targeted parents
revealed that in some cases the relationship was with a member of the
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targeted parent’s extended family from whom the targeted parent was
estranged and the relationship was actually a part of the alienation as op-
posed to occurring in spite of the alienation. This suggests that the con-
text of the contact with the targeted parent’s extended family needs to
be understood prior to concluding whether this component is present in
the child.
In general, these findings support Gardner’s (1998) observations re-
garding the constellation of the eight symptoms of PAS and should pave
the way for the development of reliable and valid assessment tools for
identifying PAS. It is clear from the data that requiring the presence of
all eight symptoms would be too stringent a test for severe PAS. The re-
sults from the data suggest two approaches for assessing PAS. In the
first approach a global judgment of PAS is made based on determining
that a child (1) rejects the targeted parent (2) who does not deserve to
be rejected (3) out of a desire to please or avoid recrimination from
the other parent. This would help differentiate PAS from estrangement
due to abuse or other mistreatment on the part of the parent. The degree
of alienation (mild, moderate, severe) could be made once the overall
determination of PAS is made. In the second approach, a checklist of the
eight components could be developed along with a criterion score that
identifies cases as mild (summary scores below 1.5), moderate (sum-
mary scores between 1.5 and 2.4) or severe (scores of 2.5 and above). It
is advised based on the experience with the current survey that this in-
formation about the eight components be derived from interviewing the
child(ren) and both parents rather than solely from a paper and pencil
tool. Often the comments provided by the survey participants elucidated
the rating system or shed helpful information on the case. Issues of tim-
ing were particularly tricky for parents completing the survey who
would often provide answers for both before and after the alienation.
Also difficult was determining exactly when the relationship became
“severely damaged.” Future work needs to build on these findings in
a large-scale study in which independent assessments of PAS and the
eight components can be made.
One surprising finding was that the campaign of denigration (often
considered the hallmark of PAS) was reported to be extreme in only
about 60% of the cases. The reasons for the lower than expected percent-
age can only be hypothesized. The narratives provided by the survey

respondents revealed that in some cases, rather than vigorously reviling

the targeted parent, the child simply refused to have any contact, claim-
ing not to be comfortable or having other things to do. In these cases the
child simply refused to have a relationship with the targeted parent and,
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because of the child’s age or other factors such as relocation of the child,
the parent did not personally hear or witness the denigration. It is possi-
ble that a campaign of denigration would occur when the child grew
older or be observed during an evaluation in which the child would be
forced to justify the rejection. This would explain why Gardner (1998)
observed during his evaluations this behavior so consistently while
there was considerable variation reported in this sample.
It might be tempting based on the earlier discussion to conclude that
these cases were not PAS but rather a more benign estrangement or alli-
ance in response to a divorce. However, in all cases the parent reported
that they had had a loving and positive relationship with the child prior
to the divorce or separation and that the child appeared to be coached or
influenced by a parent who made their wishes known to end the child’s
relationship with the other parent. For example, one parent who reported
that his daughter only denigrated him “a little” wrote that she now com-
pletely refused to see him but prior to doing so explained why her older
brothers also refused contact by saying they were “on mom’s team.”
The story strongly suggests that the child was being pressured to choose
one parent over the other after the divorce. Yet because of the particular
confluence of family factors, the alienation was not expressed primarily
through a campaign of denigration.
The item with the strongest endorsement was the child siding with
the other parent in inter-parental conflicts. Close to 88% said that this
was true all of the time and the remaining parents said that this was true
most of the time. In a sense this is the essence of PAS, taking one par-
ent’s perspective all of the time rather than being able or willing to let
the parents resolve their own conflicts or see that sometimes one parent
is more wrong than right and sometimes it works the other way around.
These children appear to be fully engaged in the inter-parental conflicts
and actively and self-righteously take the alienating parent’s side. This
means that the children are not truly open to being close to the targeted
parent because they are too willing to believe the worst in him or her.
This result suggests that consistently (and unreasonably) taking sides
with the alienating parent is as much or more of a hallmark of PAS than
a campaign of denigration.
Another interesting point is that the vast majority of targeted parents
had some form of joint or shared parenting arrangement prior to the so-
Amy J. L. Baker and Douglas C. Darnall 73

lidification of the PAS. This suggests two things. First, even when chil-
dren spend considerable amount of time with the targeted parent PAS
cannot always be prevented. Joint custody is not a de facto protective
mechanism against PAS. In fact, in some cases it is possible that the or-
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der of joint custody actually triggered the PAS in that the alienating par-
ent did not want the child to spend so much time with the other parent
and, therefore, launched the campaign to prevent such extensive visita-
tion. Second, in many cases the court-ordered arrangement was for joint
custody while the children actually resided full-time with the alienating
parent. Many of the survey respondents lamented that the courts did not
consistently or effectively enforce visitation and shared parenting plans.
One of the stated aims of the study was to determine if there were
some “cracks in the armor” of the alienation that could lead to reunifica-
tion. This was borne out by the data. All but one parent reported some
positive behaviors from the child some of the time. Most interesting was
that the average PAS score and the average “cracks in the armor” score
(the mean score of the eight variables) were not significantly correlated
(r = ⫺.14). This suggests that even the most seemingly alienated child
according to the eight components still showed some positive inclina-
tion towards the targeted parent and or extended family. This should
give targeted parents and therapist some hope for reunification (assum-
ing their perceptions are accurate). From a clinical standpoint, these be-
haviors can be considered windows of opportunity for intervention and
change. The question now for the field is to determine how parents (and
therapists) can effectively build on these moments to begin dismantling
the PAS.


The results of this study support Gardner’s (1998) identification of

the eight symptoms that he defined as consistent with the PAS. None-
theless, there was variability in the frequency of these symptoms even
with the most severely alienated child. An important next step for the
field includes determining how to assess and weight these eight symp-
toms in order to produce a reliable and valid assessment of PAS. Per-
haps an evaluation needs to consider how much weight to put on the
specific symptoms as well as issues related to frequency and duration
of the behaviors. Equally important for the field is the fact that hope for
reunification exists with even the most severely alienated child. All but
one child exhibited some signs of attachment and affection towards the

targeted parent, despite the severity of the alienation. These moments of

affection may represent windows of opportunity for facilitating reunifi-
cation. Targeted parents are in need of guidance in how to construc-
tively respond to these moments in order to maximize their potential for
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moving past the alienation.

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